Friday, March 8, 2013

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity was heavily thrown around many people's 'best of' at the end of 2012.  I read what the book was about and wrote it off: not my thing.  It would seem there came a point where I couldn't avoid it and eventually caved in.  Thank goodness I did.

Code Name Verity deals with the friendship of two British women near the end of German occupied France during WWII.  Both Maddie and Julie have very specific skills: Maddie, a desire and innate knack for flying and mechanics, Julie, nerves of steel and a super cunning intellect.  They both want to do more to support the war effort and they are both held to certain status due to their gender.  By the book's end they both gave far more than either ever intended to.

Julie writes to us from a German prison in Paris where she is being interrogated.  Her plane was shot down and in the wreckage many English wireless radio sets were found added to which it comes out that she is a spy.  The Nazis do a bit of everything to get her to tell all she knows.  Happily, we never have to witness the torture she endures directly but the evidence is relayed in not so subtle ways.  There is mention of ice water and electrocution, soldering irons and pins, forcible toe-nail removal and much worse.  She is being made to give up the code to the wireless sets, locations of secret airfields, and a host of other war-specific intelligence that her boss 'The Bloody Machiavellian Intelligence Officer' would rather she not speak of.  (And by-the-way, that's the best name for a character--spy or not--in a book ever.)

I never figured out why Julie's story needed be written down.  She was being tortured by Gestapo for a written confession.  Really?  That part never made sense to me and it was hard not to think about as the Nazis were always scrambling for precious paper of which was in short supply so Julie could continue her narrative.  You know, as opposed to doing awful things to her and making her tell them stuff.  

Through Julie's narrative we learn of how she, a wealthy Scot, with a University education and status, met a middle class 'everyday' type woman as Maddie and how they became friends.  She tells her story in first person while referring to herself in third.  (I figured it out a page or so before Wein tells us).  Until this point was made clear I found Julie's story infuriating.  Julie's written confession to her captors encompass two narratives, her induction into British intelligence and the beginning of her friendship with Maddie, and her current situation as a 'guest' at the Chateau de Bordeaux in the hands of the Nazis.  In the beginning, one of these story's was interesting and had conflict.  The other... not so much.

Following a bizarre host of circumstances Maddie very accidentally finds herself part of convert resistance rescue/seek and destroy team and it is her recollections of Julie that help her get through her present ordeals that she never envisioned undertaking. 

Both their narratives are unified by Maddie and Julie's accidental workings behind enemy lines; their solitude and isolation, and their determination to see their plans through to completion no matter of how messy the outcome may be.

I don't feel I'm doing a very good job telling what this book is about because it's so much more personal than anything what I've written thus far.  They didn't know each other very long, and they definitely came from different worlds but it's the backdrop of the war and their reality of what their doing that make Maddie and Julie's connection as friends seems so visceral. 
I always save the penultimate paragraph for what I thought didn't work particularly well when leaving comments on a book that I felt was very well done.  (Oh did I ever choose the words to that sentence with care...)  To be such drastically different people Maddie and Julie didn't come across as very different on paper.  Julie was always understandably super sensitive to her surrounding and as condescending as she felt she could get away knowing the Nazis would read and react to her confession but other than an occasional joke both sections of the book felt as if from the same 'voice.'  Code Name Verity is so well researched as to come across as educational at times.  I know--or feel that I know--more about planes, flying, mechanics, and principles of intrigue than I ever wanted to know and there were a few passing moments in the novel where I felt the details distracted from the story; especially in the beginning. 

This is easily one of the best books I've come across in a while.  The relationship feels real as do the characters trials and suffering; and once past the beginning when I kinda felt I was never given a starting point the tension is consistently at a ridiculously high level.  Here's the thing: as a reader; spies, double agents, hinted-at-torture, Nazis, and above all flying and air crafts don't interest me in the least.  For me, what many would deem the immediate appeal of this book was in a hole from the very beginning.  There were sections that I read at a frenetic pace and others where I read and thought about what I wanted for diner.  I could have put it down at anytime.  I was never once compelled or driven to sit down and read though I enjoyed it every time I did.  Code Name Verity is exceptional and while I wouldn't call it niche, neither do I think it has the broadest of appeal.  If the subject matter doesn't sound appealing to you then we may be of a kindred spirit so trust me: you'll read this book and say, 'Wow this is really well done and all kinds of exciting.'  If you've previously enjoyed WWII spy fiction and were excited before my last sentence, prepare to be blown away. 

For another look at the same book check out what Maria has to say

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